Historians as TV Celebrities ... The New Sex?

Roundup: Talking About History

Jan Dalley, in the (London) Financial Times, writing about a new book, History and the Media, ed. by David Cannadine (July 10, 2004):

History is the "new rock 'n' roll". It is the "new gardening". It is even, according to Dawn Airey when leaving her job as chief executive of channel five, the "new sex". Taylor Downing, an independent television producer and one of the contributors to this collection of essays from some of Britain's best-known telly-buffs and telly-dons, claims to have counted in a single week no fewer than 18 primetime history programmes on the five UK terrestrial channels - and that is not including the digital channels devoted to nothing else, broadcasting history 18 hours a day throughout the year.

These statistics, added to viewing figures into the millions, must seem like "the new sex" to a television executive; to the rest of us, the history boom is still a fascinating phenomenon. This book brings us the thoughts of Ian Kershaw, Tristram Hunt, Melvyn Bragg, Simon Schama, John Tusa, Jeremy Isaacs and others, in pieces that build up into a surprisingly penetrating look at what history can do for the media, and - this is the surprising bit - what the broadcast media can do for history.

Tristram Hunt, in an essay called "How Does Television Enhance History?" tackles head-on "the alleged crime of TV history: dumbed- down, drum-and-trumpet narratives rehashing the old stories in a conventional idiom for a consumer market". Like most of the other writers here, Hunt accepts that television history has committed its "misdemeanors", but "television history", he firmly claims, "is now a vital component of how millions of people interact with a past". Love it or loathe it, it is here to stay, and it has a power to reach and teach that almost no book can nowadays claim....

Simon Schama's piece is called "Television and the Trouble with History" - which could, as he starts by saying, just as well have been the other way round - "History and the Trouble with Television". Schama also details the making of his programmes and discusses decisions about locations and effects. But there are many more levels to this piece, as Schama strolls in and out of big concepts as effortlessly as if they were the rooms of his house. His reply to the academic critics is the most fully argued (perhaps he has had the most reason to need such a reply), and begins with a claim that the correlation between history and the printed word is not as absolute as many would have it. The beginnings of western history, he points out, were "part of the oral, performative, tradition". History has always been transmitted by every means available - around the campfire, through epic and drama, on the screen. He takes up the cudgels against the misperception that "print is deep, images are shallow; that print actively argues and images passively illustrate". Imagery "argues", Schama tells us, "but it argues in a different way, and it ought to be the first rule for television historians to embrace that difference".

He accuses academia of a "visual philistinism", deriving from "the self-reinforcing failure of all those graduate departments to educate their students in iconography (the scholarship of the meaning of images) and iconology (the relationship of those meanings to the cultures that produce and receive them)". It's fighting talk.

Elsewhere his essay, like many of the best pieces in this collection, brings into focus the status of memory as history's progenitor, and its relation to visual imagery. Jean Seaton, a historian of broadcasting and the last of the 10 writers here, looks back over moments at which our small screens brought history to us unmediated by time or comment or pause for reflection. In 1963 Jack Ruby murdered Lee Harvey Oswald live in front of the cameras; almost 40 years later, when the two planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, she speculates that the timing of the two collisions was planned with the cameras in mind - the gap after the first was just long enough to allow the world's lenses to be focused on the site and to bring the second impact live. That is how intimately involved the real world and its screen image have become.

History made and in the making, and the time-loops it both creates and follows, prove endlessly fascinating in these writings. There is something here that will make anyone think more deeply about the interaction between a new and apparently instant medium and an old and apparently time-enhanced discipline. It is unlikely, after this, that anyone can continue to accuse the best of TV history of being nothing but a pageant of kings and queens.

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More Comments:

HNN - 7/25/2004

The title of the book is: HISTORY AND THE MEDIA.

It's edited by David Cannadine

Danny McGuire - 7/21/2004

I enjoyed this article and would like to find this book of essays, but Mr. Dalley doesn't give us a specific title--or I obviously missed it after three reads--or it's the title of Mr. Dalley's article.

Please help. Appreciatively - DM